State of Maine: Time for open primaries

Election reform and election security are very much a part of the conversation in Augusta this winter. There is a bill that would allow a candidate’s nickname to appear on the ballot (LD 517) and one that seeks to clarify residency requirements for legislative candidates (LD 95). There are bills seeking to compel a wider distribution of signatures gathered on petitions. A perennial favorite is back in a bill to require photo identification at the polls.

Another proposal that has been floated more than once but whose time may have come is a move for “open primaries.”

Maine is one of just 14 states with closed primaries, meaning primaries in which only party members may vote. An open primary is one in which all registered voters may vote without declaring a party affiliation by simply requesting the partisan ballot of their choice and casting a vote. Currently in Maine, an “independent” (unenrolled) voter must register in a party to vote in the primary and then wait 90 days to be able to unenroll again.

Another type of primary is the “top two” primary where all candidates are on a single ballot. The two receiving the most votes, regardless of party affiliation, go on to the general election. Though it is in use in some places in the U.S., it is probably a bridge too far for Maine and is not what the Maine proposal seeks.

Independents represent the largest proportion of the state’s voters, more numerous than members of any political party.

Under the current sytem, primary election turnout consists largely of the party “base,” which tends to represent the more ideological partisans. The result is a nominee for the general election who has little broad appeal, leaving us with a “lesser of two evils” choice. With independents voting in the primaries, the nominations might go to candidates closer to the center of their party.

Party members express concern about large numbers of unenrolled voters making mischief within their primaries. Independents could get together and decide to vote for the weakest candidate on a party ballot, ensuring victory of the other party in the general election. Fat chance. Independents are just not that organized, nor do they have the established communication channels the parties do.

When independents express the wish to be able to vote in primaries, the rejoinder from party members is: “You can. Just join a party.” Well, thanks, friends and neighbors, but independents do not want to join a party. Their reasons vary, as they do for those who enroll in the party of their choice. But the right to live by one’s own political preferences should hold for partisans and independents alike.

Another response is that independents should form a party of their own, earning all the rights and privileges that entails. But if independents officially became the Independent Party, the I’s would be — a party. Then would come the endless fundraising, the conventions, the standing shoulder-to-shoulder behind somebody at a microphone. They would quickly turn into the kind of organization that put unenrolled voters off parties in the first place. No, thank you.

And by the way, why the heck should independents have to help pay for primary elections in which they are not permitted to vote? Taxation without representation comes to mind. If the parties want to restrict voting to members only, fine, but then they should pay for the primaries themselves. One state is doing something about that. A bill has been introduced in New Mexico this year that gives a party the choice. The party must open the primary election or pay for it if it is closed.

Not so in Maine. The parties here want to restrict primary voting to party members, and they want the state to pay for it. A law passed in 2016 provides for a presidential primary in Maine in 2020, and expressly forbids voting by anyone but party members. The Secretary of State’s office was charged with determining the cost of presidential primaries and the fiscal impact on municipalities and suggestions for mitigating the cost. That cost is estimated at about a million dollars. Independents, through their tax dollars, would pay the largest share of any single voting sector, yet be disenfranchised.

Maine laws have changed over the past two decades to acknowledge the existence of independent voters. They may now participate more easily as ballot clerks in local elections and serve on state boards and commissions where once service was restricted to the “major political parties.” Political rhetoric routinely includes “Democrats, Republicans and independents” rather than just referencing the two parties.

It is time to open the primary process and give unenrolled voters a say in the choices at a general election. They help pay for the primaries, so it is only fair to let them vote.

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Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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